The Ultimate EA Retrospective: In-Depth on Riccitiello’s Legacy
Riccitiello’s New EA
As newly-minted CEO, John Riccitiello struck a somewhat contrite tone upon assuming leadership of EA, and throughout 2008, he offered frank assessments of past EA business practices. “The command and conquer model doesn’t work,” he said at the DICE Summit early that year in Las Vegas. “If you think you’re going to buy a developer and put your name on the label … you’re making a profound mistake.”
Riccitiello was similarly critical of the way EA treated creative staff within their acquisitions during his time as COO. “We at EA blew it, and to a degree I was involved in these things, so I blew it,” he said. “When I talked to the creators that populated these companies at the time, they felt like they were buried and stifled. Creative teams can be thought of as flowers in a hothouse — you move the temperature up or down a few degrees and the flowers will die.”
This seemed to be a signal that EA was changing. And at first, it was. When Riccitiello took the helm, he reorganized the company into four labels, each with a responsibility for its own product development and publishing. These four labels — EA Sports, EA Games, EA Casual Entertainment, and The Sims — were given autonomy to manage themselves like city-states. By 2010 a fifth group, the RPG label (later renamed the BioWare Label), was created, based around the Mass Effect developer’s critically acclaimed style of game.
For each division, Riccitiello seemed to prefer a hands-off approach to managing the development of games: EA-owned developers were given a greater degree of freedom than they had under Probst. Riccitiello’s EA scaled back on the number of games it was producing and instead focused on more core franchises and strong new properties. This period’s more intense, intelligent focus produced new intellectual property such as Mirror’s Edge, Spore, Dead Space and Dante’s Inferno, as well as Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins, both of which were critical and financial successes and which appeared to validate the approach.
Along with traditional gaming, EA expanded into the mobile gaming sphere as it sprung up around Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices, as well as Google’s Android platform. A smart focus on emerging models in the mobile sphere allowed EA to create a vast amount of varying content, often of a high degree of quality. While the publisher found success in creating mobile versions of some of its console and PC properties, it also embraced the free-to-play model of releasing games for free and monetizing the game through “micro-transactions,” or small sales of in-game items and benefits. EA’s successful focus on mobile has made it one of the biggest publishers in the iTunes App Store, and certainly the leading traditional publisher in that market.
Riccitiello also pushed the EA Partners program, through which the company funded games from third-party developers, such as Brutal Legend, the Crysis series, Left 4 Dead and (eventually) Portal 2 — titles that may have otherwise not existed without EA’s financial backing. Even id Software’s John Carmack remarked in 2008 that the publisher’s ethos had changed, which prompted Carmack and his studio to go with EA Partners with first-person shooter RAGE. (GameSpot)
“I’ll admit that, if you asked me years ago, I still had thoughts that EA was the ‘evil empire,’ the company that crushes the small studios … I’d have been surprised, if you told me a year ago that we’d end up with EA as a publisher,” Carmack said. “When we went out and talked to people, especially EA Partners people like Valve, we got almost uniformly positive responses from them.”
Riccitiello expressed his belief that the traditional development cycle was “gone forever” and that it was no longer smart for developers and publishers to take years to develop their main IPs. Instead, Riccitiello pushed for regular releases of the company’s strongest franchises.
“We’re building the strength of our most important IP,” Riccitiello said in 2011. “And for EA, this means about a dozen very substantial IPs. Each of these will be transformed into year-round businesses with major packaged goods launches, social launches, mobile launches, downloadable content and micro-transactions.”